Bermuda: To the hurricane born

It was Fate and another hurricane that started uninhabited Bermuda on the road to settlement by people in 1609, earlier colonisers being birds like the Cahow and Longtail, bees (one presumes) and the ultimately unique and majestic Bermuda "cedar", our endemic species of the juniper tree of North America. Beating its way across the southern North Atlantic in July, 1609, the small ship, Sea Venture, ran straight into a "hurricano" that was probably on the same track from the south as Igor of 2010 and Fabian of 2003. The well-known story, used by Shakespeare as the template for his last play, "The Tempest", was immediately broadcast in England the following summer, when all but five of the passengers of the Sea Venture appeared at Jamestown in Virginia, hale and healthy after a ten-month vacation in Bermuda. Those left behind on the island were a murdered sailor, an executed mutineer, a missing Native American, and two live chaps, one on the run for murder. Two babies born here died not survive and Bermuda, a girl, and Bermudas, a boy, lie in yet unknown graves.

While 1,000 miles removed from the West Indies and Caribbean Sea, which entities one might consider the epicenter of mighty hurricanes, though most are formed near the Cape Verde Islands, Bermuda comes in for a goodly share of meetings with those cyclones of the Western Hemisphere, called typhoons in oriental half of the globe. Soon after the first batch of designated settlers arrived in Bermuda in July 1612, they were given a good bashing by a hurricane. In the absence of The Weather Channel and other modern marvels, they would learn what Bermudians would know before the age of the telegraph: the south shore would boom, the crashing rollers of a perfect calm sea indicating the approach of a hurricane, yet some hundreds of miles away.

In addition, Bermudians learned to gut some poor sharks for the oil of their livers, not for cooking or lighting, like whale oil, but for shark oil barometers, still considered by those who have and can read them to be serious indicators of the coming depression of a hurricane. One of the more famous was Gerald Smith, who regaled visitors at Albouy's Point with the value of that weather-predicting device. Now, even if you would deprive a shark or two of his predictive liver, to be tryed or melted in the sun for its oil, you could not sell the organic barometers to air travellers, as it might be construed as a terrorist liquid, especially when one tries to explain to the US Customs officer what it is used for!

  • <b>Severe damage:</b> Hurricane Fabian peeled back a Dockyard roof in 2003.

    Severe damage: Hurricane Fabian peeled back a Dockyard roof in 2003.

  • <b>A horse and cart </b> destroyed in Hamilton in the hurricane of September 4, 1917.

    A horse and cart destroyed in Hamilton in the hurricane of September 4, 1917.

  • <b>Tempestuous ocean:</b> A chart of 1,325 tropical storms and hurricanes, from 1851 to 2002.

    Tempestuous ocean: A chart of 1,325 tropical storms and hurricanes, from 1851 to 2002.

  • <b>Shattered: </b> The Long Arm, now

    Shattered: The Long Arm, now "King's Wharf", breakwater damaged in 1899.

  • <b>Reliable:</b> Gerald Smith points out a

    Reliable: Gerald Smith points out a "peak" in a shark oil barometer.


It was Fate and another hurricane that started uninhabited Bermuda on the road to settlement by people in 1609, earlier colonisers being birds like the Cahow and Longtail, bees (one presumes) and the ultimately unique and majestic Bermuda "cedar", our endemic species of the juniper tree of North America. Beating its way across the southern North Atlantic in July, 1609, the small ship, Sea Venture, ran straight into a "hurricano" that was probably on the same track from the south as Igor of 2010 and Fabian of 2003. The well-known story, used by Shakespeare as the template for his last play, "The Tempest", was immediately broadcast in England the following summer, when all but five of the passengers of the Sea Venture appeared at Jamestown in Virginia, hale and healthy after a ten-month vacation in Bermuda. Those left behind on the island were a murdered sailor, an executed mutineer, a missing Native American, and two live chaps, one on the run for murder. Two babies born here died not survive and Bermuda, a girl, and Bermudas, a boy, lie in yet unknown graves.

While 1,000 miles removed from the West Indies and Caribbean Sea, which entities one might consider the epicenter of mighty hurricanes, though most are formed near the Cape Verde Islands, Bermuda comes in for a goodly share of meetings with those cyclones of the Western Hemisphere, called typhoons in oriental half of the globe. Soon after the first batch of designated settlers arrived in Bermuda in July 1612, they were given a good bashing by a hurricane. In the absence of The Weather Channel and other modern marvels, they would learn what Bermudians would know before the age of the telegraph: the south shore would boom, the crashing rollers of a perfect calm sea indicating the approach of a hurricane, yet some hundreds of miles away.

In addition, Bermudians learned to gut some poor sharks for the oil of their livers, not for cooking or lighting, like whale oil, but for shark oil barometers, still considered by those who have and can read them to be serious indicators of the coming depression of a hurricane. One of the more famous was Gerald Smith, who regaled visitors at Albouy's Point with the value of that weather-predicting device. Now, even if you would deprive a shark or two of his predictive liver, to be tryed or melted in the sun for its oil, you could not sell the organic barometers to air travellers, as it might be construed as a terrorist liquid, especially when one tries to explain to the US Customs officer what it is used for!

In November 1619, a decade after the Sea Venture storm, another hurricane struck the island, sending the Earl of Warwick's ship, Warwick, to the shallow bottom of Castle Harbour. That disaster gave the new Governor of Bermuda, Captain Nathaniel Butler, another blow, coming soon after the accidental burning of the only timber fort in Bermuda on Castle Island. He then had three hard years dealing with the political depressions of the settlers, well on their way to becoming troublesome Bermudians.

In 1966, the late Mrs. Terry Tucker, OBE, performed a considerable service to the island when she published "Beware The Hurricane!", subtitled "The story of The Cyclonic Tropical Storms that have struck Bermuda and The Islanders' Folk-lore regarding them". Mrs. Tucker listed a number of the hurricanes that have struck the island over three and a half centuries, but of course it would be decades hence before Emily and then Fabian had their considerable destructive ways with Bermuda, followed now by Igor.

The worst recorded hurricanes since 1609 occurred in 1780, 1839, 1899 and 1926. The first, now known as "The Great Hurricane" lambasted Barbados with winds upwards of 200 miles per hour and caused widespread death and damage, before marching up the West Indies chain and onwards to Bermuda: its death toll has not been exceeded. The cyclone of 1839 occurred while Sir William Reid was here as Governor, which gave him further insights into hurricanes, on which he had published the first scientific tome on such a stormy topic the previous year. The hurricane of 1899 tore up the Breakwater at the Dockyard, as Emily did in 1987, and from that earlier year, we have some of the earlier surviving photographs of such a storm. The 1926 depression sank a Royal Navy ship, HMS Valerian, off Bermuda, but some crew lived to tale the horrific tale of mountainous seas and a vessel capsized.

In Hurricane Fabian, we lost four of our citizens, who ventured onto "The Causeway" and proved to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Hopefully their deaths will be an enduring reminder to everyone that Bermuda was to the hurricane born and that during such whirlwinds, they should remain battened down in their Bermuda homes, among the strongest constructions anywhere in the domain of such Atlantic storms. Hurricanes are a part of our heritage, but they do not have unnecessarily to write our epitaphs.

Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is executive director of the National Museum of Bermuda, incorporating the Bermuda Maritime Museum. Comments may be made to director@bmm.bm or 704-5480.

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